Medical Interpreters
What to Know About the Profession

Medical interpreters are a crucial part of any hospital. It used to be that Spanish interpreters were mostly used in areas with a high concentration of Spanish speakers, like southern California or New York City.

However, with the changing demographics of the United States, positions for health-related interpreters have expanded and are now needed across the country, from Connecticut to Washington State, from Wisconsin to Massachusetts.

Along with the expanded job prospects for medical interpreters is also an expanded work role for those in this profession. It used to be that interpreters would be strictly limited to performing interpreting tasks; however, nowadays interpreters working in hospitals, medical institutions, and health-related call centers would do well to have more than interpretation skills under their belt.

Not only is the competition more intense (especially for Spanish language interpreters), but also need to be proficient with data entry skills, have some management experience, and be a consummate team player. In addition, most hospitals and medical establishments don't separately hire interpreters and translators, but rather rely on the one hired for the position to perform both roles. So a language-professional should be comfortable performing both functions.

Medical Interpreter Qualifications

If you're interested in becoming an interpreter in the medical field, there are some things you can do to better prepare to land a position.

In a quick search on a job site, I found the following position being advertised for a Spanish interpreter position at a hospital in Atlanta:

  • Completed formal medical interpreting training/program
  • Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics, Spanish or related field preferred
  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills in English and Spanish
  • Broad knowledge of medical terminology and culture
  • Professional attitude and customer service skills
  • Basic computer knowledge
  • Ability to pass Interpreter Skills Test with a minimum terminology score of 80% and a maximum of 3 significant errors

Most of the interpreter jobs online have at a minimum these qualifications. The important thing is to try and have more than just the bare minimum when you apply for a job like this.

For example, if you knew a third language like Portuguese, you would be that much more valuable and hirable. In addition, having some previous experience in the medical field, even if it's not as a translator or interpreter, would also be highly favorable.

Another site had the following description for a medical interpretation position:

Medical interpreters work with non-English speaking patients in the hospital and physician's offices clinics. You will act as a conduit between patients and medical professionals by listening to the professional and orally translating information into a patient's native language in layman's terms. The Medical Interpreter will then translate the patient's response back to the professional, using proper medical terminology. You may translate such information as the reason for a medical visit, past medical history and family medical history, as well as explaining medical and surgical procedures, giving medical care instructions, providing drug information and scheduling follow-up appointments.

I highlighted the portion above to show that while interpreters usually interpret word for word, in the medical field interpretation does not merely happen from one language to another, but also involves interpreting registers: a higher medical-focused register to one that is more understandable by the patients.

Health Interpreter Intangibles

In order to serve hospital clients, interpreters also need to have certain useful skills that aren't necessarily quantified through training classes or education degrees.

One of the most important traits of a good hospital interpreter is their bedside manner. In study after study, research shows that the number one trait that patients use to judge doctors and nurses is how they treat the patients. Not necessarily their medical knowledge. With interpreters it's going to be the same.

The patient that doesn't speak English and can't directly communicate with the doctor or nurse might feel reserved when it comes to explaining symptoms or describing any medical issues. This can happen even through an intermediary like an interpreter. And the last thing a doctor or nurse wants is to try and help a patient that isn't willing to provide all the information necessary to receive adequate treatment.

On the flip side, interpreters not only need to be comfortable making patients feel at ease, but also need to be confident and comfortable when transmitting information to doctors and nurses.

Along with good bedside manners and proficient language and interpretation skills, a medical interpreter also needs to have a cultural understanding of the client base he or she is serving.

It is well known that we all have taboos and biases when it comes to discussing certain topics, especially topics that can arise during medical discussions. Because of those taboos, some patients will be uncomfortable when talking about certain things, and could possibly be even more nervous when having to discuss those problems through a third party such as an interpreter.

Interpreters can ease patients' anxiety by establishing a good relationships so that everything that needs to be communicated will be communicated to the doctor or nurse. This is the most important step for finding the right diagnosis and treatment for someone who needs the help of a medical interpreter.


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